Katie Wolber, French horn player with the Dallas Opera, joins DSO horn Haley Hoops and six other woodwind musicians for “Passing the Torch” – our Bancroft Family Concert at the Dallas Museum of Art’s Horchow Auditorium on January 28. Doors open at 2:30 for the 3:00 concert. As always, the concert is free. The program features woodwind octets by Haydn and Mozart.
A devastating crash, an amazing recovery
In May 2011, Katie and her husband Kurt were in a horrific car accident. Traveling on I-35, they were hit head-on by a driver with Alzheimer’s driving the wrong way on the highway at full speed. Their car spun and was struck again by another driver. Their sedan came to stop facing the wrong way on the highway. Kurt sustained a badly broken left hand that required surgery and lives with metal plates and screws in his hand. He had burns on his right hand and arm, a puncture wound to his chest, and a neck injury.
Katie’s injuries were much more severe. She had multiple fractures to her pelvis, vertebrae, rib, ankle, both arms, and at the base of her skull. Katie also had damage to her shoulder, lungs, neck ligaments, a dislocated kneecap, and many injuries to her mouth and face. Her worst injury was a near-fatal lacerated liver. Most people would not have survived the accident. In fact, the ICU nurses told Katie they thought it was a mistake on her file that she had not been brought in on life support.
Despite all that trauma, Katie and Kurt remain thankful and feel like they have “won the life lottery.” Doctors originally told Kurt that Katie would never walk again, then changed the diagnosis to six months until she could walk. However, Katie walked in 8 weeks. Multiple surgeries, physical therapy, and another health scare followed, but 2015 marked the first calendar year with no surgeries for Katie. She credits the safety features of their vehicle, their healthy lifestyle and fitness levels before the accident, and divine providence for their survival and healing.
Katie, thank you for sharing about your accident. Needless to say, we are so glad you are on stage and able to play! You had to take seven months off from playing the horn. What was it like to pick up the instrument again and play for the first time? I tried to play too soon – just four months after the wreck. My face hadn’t healed enough and I couldn’t play properly. It was like one side of my face wouldn’t work and kept collapsing. I was extremely frustrated, but I didn’t want to compensate for the left side of my face and form bad habits, so I put it down and tried again three months later in January of 2012.
I had a lot of injuries to my face, along with a fake tooth that doesn’t feel quite the same as my original. Things felt weird at first, but within minutes of picking it back up in January 2012 I had adjusted and felt used to it. Everything felt normal, and I had no physical problems. It was a HUGE relief. I honestly think that if I were a string player, I probably would have quit playing altogether. My right shoulder strains to bring my arm across the body, and playing would be unbearable.
What was practice like at first? I started out slow and easy to make sure nothing felt strange, but quickly realized that everything felt just as it did before the accident. The first week or so I only practiced basics like long tones and scales. I decided that since it felt normal, the best thing to do would be to jump back into playing – full speed ahead! The symphonies and the contractors in the area knew I wasn’t able to play (and many thought that I never would play again, from what I’ve been told), and I wanted everyone to know that I was back and as good as new. One of the ways I did that was to audition for two summer festivals. I made tapes for them a few weeks after picking up the horn again. I was accepted by both and attended both – the Sarasota Chamber Music Festival, and the Youth Orchestra of the Americas where I was the primary principal player on a six-week tour in Chile.
Within two weeks I had enough endurance to play for a concert. I asked my main teacher from SMU Greg Hustis, the former principal horn of the DSO, if I could come play for him. He couldn’t believe how I sounded – like nothing had happened. It was one of the most exhilarating lessons of my life. I played with the Dallas Symphony in March, and went on their European Tour in 2013. It was unbelievable and I was incredibly happy.
How long did it take to get back to the level you were at before the accident? I think three weeks, tops. That’s when I had my lesson with Greg Hustis. I still have my audition tapes I recorded from then if you’d like to hear them!
Did returning to the horn feel like a burden or a release? It was definitely a release! I had been teaching private horn lessons in public schools and continued to do so for another year after the accident, but playing is my passion. I wanted nothing more than to be back in the saddle performing around town.
For “Passing the Torch” four DSO musicians partner with four of their protégés. You, in this scenario, are one of the protégés. How does it feel to play alongside these mentors? When I was a student at SMU, my friends and I always revered our teachers and the musicians of the DSO. They were examples of what we wanted to become, and they set the bar high. I’ll never forget the first time I had the opportunity to perform with the symphony – I was incredibly nervous and felt so lucky. It is still an honor to play alongside them today.
What piece on the program are you most excited about? I would have to choose the Mozart Octet. One of Mozart’s great friends was a hornist named Joseph Leutgeb, so I’m sure he had him in mind when he wrote the piece. And, who doesn’t love Mozart?
What’s the most challenging thing about being a professional musician? For me, personally, it’s the schedule. Musicians typically work nights and weekends, and our schedules are somewhat irregular. My husband, on the other hand, is an attorney who works a more traditional schedule. As a result, it can be tough to coordinate our schedules at times.
Do you have a particularly memorable performance or recital you could tell us about? I would have to say playing Mahler’s Sixth Symphony in the Concertgebouw Hall in Amsterdam. I had been invited to play with the DSO on their European Tour in 2013, which was an unforgettable experience. Not many musicians get the opportunity to play such a fantastic piece in one of the most famous concert halls in the world. The performance was also live-streamed online, so my friends and family were able to watch back home.
How old were you when you started playing the french horn? Why did you choose the horn? My parents tried to start me when I was in second grade, so I was about 7 years old. Unfortunately, I was too short for it and couldn’t reach the mouthpiece while resting the bell on my leg. My dad held the bell for me and taught me to play a C scale and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Obviously that was not a good long-term solution, so we put the horn away and I picked it back up two years later. My parents are band directors and basically told me I would play the horn. I didn’t want to have the same instrument as anyone else in the family, and I always liked the look of it when I would see miniature versions as Christmas tree ornaments.
What type of music did you listen to as a kid? I listened to whatever my parents had on – mostly classical and jazz.
Who’s your favorite composer to listen to? To play? To listen to, definitely Strauss – he has some great horn parts! To play, I think Mahler – his music is just so powerful and fun to play in the orchestra.
What’s your favorite sound (musical or non-musical)? Least favorite? This is a question I’ve never been asked! I’d have to say that right now I enjoy hearing the sound of my horse’s lips smacking together as he reaches for a treat – it’s just too funny. I recently took up horseback riding and I make sure my horse is good and spoiled! My least favorite sound? Probably the sound of one of my dogs getting sick in the middle of the night.
Once you leave this world and reach the pearly gates, what celestial concert are you looking forward to? Louis Armstrong!